Karzai suffers slump in popularity as Afghan presidential campaign gets under way
The Guardian
Jon Boone, Kabul

Official campaigning for Afghanistan’s presidential election began yesterday with an opinion poll revealing that support for Hamid Karzai, the incumbent, has slumped in the four and a half years since he became the country’s first democratically elected leader.

As many of the 41 candidates began plastering Kabul with posters yesterday, what is likely to be the only opinion poll of the campaign showed that much of the shine has been rubbed off Karzai by years of government mismanagement and corruption.

According to the poll of 3,200 Afghans from across the country, Karzai can expect to receive 33% of the vote – well below the half of all votes required to win the first round of the election, on 20 August. In the last election, in 2004, Karzai won 54%.

More alarmingly for the president, his support in the south of the country, the heartland of the dominant Pashtun people and the president’s power base, has dropped sharply since 2004, according to the opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, an independent organisation that promotes democracy and receives funding from the US government.

Nationwide, 50% of Pashtuns questioned said they voted for Karzai last time, but only 26% supported him now.

Despite the confirmation of Karzai’s unpopularity, his opponents did worse. Of his two most formidable opponents, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, was picked by 7% of people, while Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, was supported by 3%.

The two men will take comfort from the fact that the polling was conducted in the first half of last month, when only Karzai had declared himself as a candidate.

Ghani kicked off his campaign yesterday with a speech to about 1,000 supporters in which he criticised Karzai’s eight-year rule.

Nonetheless, the conventional wisdom among foreign diplomats in Kabul is that in a country of widespread illiteracy and deep-rooted tribal and ethnic loyalties, the election will not be decided by the popularity of individual candidates. Instead, it is believed, most voters will cast their ballots for whoever they are told to vote for by community leaders.

Karzai is therefore thought to be the most likely to win, after he successfully obtained the support of most of the coun try’s important powerbrokers – including former enemies and some with dubious track records on corruption and human rights.

But some diplomats urged a degree of caution, saying that no one can really know whether the supporters of such men will put their contempt for what many view as a weak and ineffective president to one side in order to re-elect Karzai.

Karzai has led Afghanistan since the Taliban’s ousting in 2001 and won the first presidential election in 2004.

The start of his campaign yesterday was announced by Deen Muhammad, a community leader from eastern Afghanistan and former Kabul governor, who will oversee Karzai’s re-election bid.

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